Fun fact: Self-driving cars are afraid of steam.
Hoosiers can see for themselves by driving downtown in a self-driving car, a free transportation service first launched this week. A partnership between May Mobility, a company that makes self-driving technologies, and the Toyota Mobility Foundation, a branch of the automaker that deals with connected transportation, has rolled out these autonomous shuttles primarily on the IUPUI campus. Even if you’re not a student or an employee, feel free to hop in and see what it’s like to drive a car that drives with no hands on the wheel and one foot on the pedal. Certified fleet drivers sit in the front seats to control the car manually if necessary, to monitor the new technology and to take precautionary measures.
The rides are free to the public and the service runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The public can access the map here, which shows all of the stops, most of which are on the IUPUI campus, and where the shuttles are currently located. The locations will soon also be available via Google Maps.
Once you get to a stop, just wait for a car to arrive and a fleet driver will pick you up. Passengers must always wear a seat belt and mask.
Sitting in the back seat feels like enjoying a slow, relaxing roller coaster ride with downtown Indy acting as the backdrop while the car goes for a walk. The journey can be quite bumpy at times, because the extremely careful technology takes into account every pedestrian, every vehicle and every object that the car might come across. It slows down when it senses something on its way and applies the brakes when necessary. This even includes the detection of steam rising from a shaft or a shaft. Vigilance keeps the speed below 25 mph.
The fleet driver takes over manual control of the vehicle at regular intervals in order to avoid obstacles for which the vehicle has not yet been programmed. The driver always takes control of unprotected left turns and usually does so if another car is blocking the road or an object gets stuck on the road. The drivers are trained to be familiar with the track and the technology and know how to deal with everything that the car encounters on the track.
Getting into the luxury vehicle feels normal, like getting into a taxi or an Uber. There is a screen in the back seat showing the route and its stops. As soon as the car starts moving, it is a surreal experience to watch the wheel spin by itself and to feel the forward movement without the weight of a foot on the pedal. The car keeps perfectly in lane, makes stops at stop signs and traffic lights, and carefully monitors its surroundings to ensure a safe journey. Drivers look forward to questions.
TMF’s initiative aims to create Future Mobility Districts, places where new technologies are tested, with the aim of creating more movement among people and improving existing traffic. Trey Ingram, TMF’s North American program manager, said Indiana was selected as Toyota’s first Future Mobility District because of the city’s existing mobility innovations, such as the IndyGo Red Line and the Cultural Trail. He also noted that Toyota has good relationships with Indiana thanks to its manufacturing facility here and that the Energy Systems Network, a development partner of the Toyota Mobility Foundation, is headquartered in Indianapolis.
Ingram said the goal of the initiative is to help cities and other local organizations answer questions about how these new technologies can be integrated into their existing transportation systems. He said TMF also plans to bring information from Indianapolis to other cities across the country.
“We really want to try to create a common network across the communities in order to use the findings,” says Ingram.
If you’d like to ride the shuttle, the service, which can carry up to three passengers per car, will be available downtown from now through November and will then move to Fishers from December through June 2022.